Stepping into the thick, warm embrace of darkness, soft earth shifts underfoot. Ahead, an anaemic shaft of light slices through the blackness, casting murky shadows across the faces of fellow audience members as we instinctively gather into a ragged circle. Sounds of water and birdsong spill into the space, unsettlingly enhanced – a hyperreal evocation of nature in a contained corner of Toynbee Studios, an elsewhere that drifts between dream and forest.
In Madeleine Botet de Lacaze’s piece The Shell, contact – the central theme of this year’s SPILL Festival – is promised then denied. Pacing the earth around the huddled audience, her bare body visible in dim snatches, de Lacaze steps close to each of us in turn, her face directed towards ours yet shrouded in the gloom. We share the same tight circle of space for suspended moments, before de Lacaze’s audible intake of break punctures the encounter, snagging on the brief possibility of intimacy and immediately snatching it away. These encounters come one after the other in full sight of other audience members, heightening anticipation with every pause, each offering up a connection that is quickly severed.
The other form of contact within the piece is that between de Lacaze’s body and the projected image of her body, a visualised division of self that is played out on the artist’s skin. The two bodies – real and projected – turn, bend, wash and scrub, at times together and at times apart. It is in the tension between these two images of the self, in the moments of simultaneity and slippage, that the piece finds its oddly captivating power. Through precise and beautifully judged use of the projection technology, these two bodies enter a jostling dialogue with one another, only fleetingly settling, butterfly-like, on moments of togetherness.
A similar tension pervades Jo Hellier’s 97 Years, though here the tension is between age and memory, the things we can briefly capture and the things that are irrevocably lost. It’s a tension that is mirrored in the arrangement of the space, as audience members are gradually recruited to hold the installation together, required to hold strings taut to keep pouches of apples suspended in the air before the large screen onto which Hellier projects video of her grandfather and his beloved garden. The apples themselves, more of which are arranged neatly in a row on the floor, are at various stages of decay, sweet yet rotting, hinting at the joys and sorrows of the ageing process that Hellier observes her grandfather experiencing.
The atmosphere cultivated by Hellier is one of delicate tenderness, an aura of gentleness that is ruptured by the violence of the piece’s audio manipulation, as the recorded words of her grandfather are spliced and distorted, looped on repeat or drowned out with white noise. The snatches of conversation that Hellier has gathered, together with the video footage, are markedly ordinary and everyday, but through her interventions they become distanced and alien, disrupted and repeated. It is we as audience members who are offered partial control of the audio distortion, our raising and lowering of the apples at the end of our string signalling the shifts in sound. Although the communality can feel contrived, Hellier’s gentle presence irresistibly invites engagement, while our physical connection to the piece through the strings – an almost umbilical link to the artwork – creates an immediate investment in it. We are the ones holding the piece, in the sense of both cradling and suspending it.
Holding, as might be expected, is also at the heart of Rosana Cade’s Walking: Holding. A tour through the busy, sun-drenched streets of East London with our hands slipped inside those of a series of strangers, Cade’s gorgeous embrace of a piece forms a meditation on intimacy and difference, offering the attractive promise of a pause within the constant noise of the urban space. I begin holding hands with Cade herself, a warm, quiet presence, who then passes me on to the first of a number of strangers, each of whom lead me through the city hand in hand. It’s a simple but startling premise. The activity of hand-holding, somehow so much more intimate than many other forms of physical contact, is made alien yet safe; participants are invited to examine their own relationship with intimacy while engaging in a kind of intimacy that is controlled, set out within clear rules and limits.
I’m surprised at how quickly I become accustomed to the feel of another’s hand in my own, just as a still, extended silence at one point in the walk shifts from initial awkwardness into tranquil comfort. Despite such moments of quiet reflection, however, the piece is far from an escape. As well as interrogating intimacy from a personal, internalised perspective – what does hand-holding mean to you? how do you understand love? – Walking: Holding also takes an external view, inviting participants to look at themselves and their series of partners, often from a position of difference. With this purpose, the walk deliberately incorporates several reflective surfaces, literal instances of the way the city is used as a mirror. How does this mirror reflect me when holding hands with another woman, or with a man dressed in drag? What eventually emerges from the experience, on a personal level, is a spirit of quiet defiance, of refusal to be deterred by others’ looks or opinions. One of my companions on the walk describes holding hands as existing in a bubble populated by just two; it is a small tragedy when that bubble is punctured by enforced self-consciousness.
After Walking: Holding, my hand empty and exposed to the cool April air, Paul Easterbrook’s durational performance HardBoiled? is a curiously distant spectacle. Pushing his body to its physical limits, Easterbrook pounds sledgehammer against metal, crushes objects between the teeth of a vice, hurls heavy containers of liquid against brick walls, their brightly coloured contents spilling across the stone floor. The critical dialogue with conventional images of masculinity is at once apparent, with the effort of Easterbrook’s strained body simultaneously revealing both strength and vulnerability, the futility of his arbitrary demonstrations of physical might hinting at the arbitrariness of masculine signifiers. Yet it never quite hits with the force it promises, its critique – at least in the section I saw – stopping slightly short. In the brief snapshot I experience of this year’s National Showcase work, the contact that achieves greatest impact is not the violent, but the disarmingly gentle.